Tue, 17 May 2022

2021 position breakdown: Tight ends

Detroit Lions
27 Jan 2022, 00:25 GMT+10

Tim Twentyman

The good: Third-year veteran T.J. Hockenson continues to prove he's one of the best young tight ends in the NFL. He was on pace to topping his Pro Bowl numbers from 2020 in receptions, yards and touchdowns before a thumb injury cost him the final five games of the regular season. He recorded at least six receptions in half the games he played this season.

Hockenson (61), wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (90) and running back D'Andre Swift (60) became the first tight end, receiver and running back trio to each catch 60 passes in a season in franchise history. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the only other team in the NFL to accomplish the feat in 2021.

Hockenson's 5.1 receptions per game average was third best among NFL tight ends, and his catch percentage of 72.6 percent was sixth best. Hockenson is only the second Lions tight end to have 60 receptions in consecutive seasons and first since Brandon Pettigrew in the 2010-11 seasons.

Undrafted rookie Brock Wright came on strong at the end of the season having to play a bigger role with Hockenson out. He caught touchdown passes in both the Lions wins over Minnesota and Green Bay to finish the year.

Hybrid fullback/tight end Jason Cabinda proved to be a versatile weapon in Detroit's scheme. His ability to play both fullback and some tight end gives the Lions some flexibility with the roster.

The bad: Wright got a chance to be the team's No. 1 tight end the last month of the season because of the Hockenson injury, but he was elevated to No. 2 status midseason after the team and veteran tight end Darren Fells agreed to mutually part ways. Fells never really fit in Detroit in his second stint with the team after signing as a free agent. He caught just four passes for 43 yards in seven games played with the Lions in 2021.

After playing in all 16 games in 2020, Hockenson missed five games this season due to a thumb injury. He missed the last four games of his rookie season due to an ankle injury.

Key stat: Hockenson has the most touchdowns (12) by a Lions tight end through his first three seasons, and ranks fifth in franchise history for receptions (160) by a player before turning 25 years old.

2021 position breakdown: Cornerbacks A closer look at the Lions' Senior Bowl roster: Offense 2021 position breakdown: Running backs

Free agents: Jason Cabinda (restricted), Brock Wright (Exclusive rights).

Cabinda is a Pro Bowl alternate at fullback, but he's included here for his ability to slide into some tight end concepts and play a role there too. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Lions try to re-sign Cabinda.

If the Lions want Wright back, he'll be a Lion, and there's no reason to think the team won't want to continue to develop his skill set moving forward.

The NFL free-agent class of tight ends includes names like: Mike Gesicki, Dalton Schultz, David Njoku, Zach Ertz and Gerald Everett.

Draft: It's not a particularly strong class of tight ends, but there's talent to be had in Days 2 & 3 of the draft. Jalen Wydermyer (Texas A&M), Trey McBride (Colorado State), Jeremy Ruckert (Ohio State) and Greg Dulcich (UCLA) are a few names to keep an eye on.

MVP: Hockenson continues to ascend into the top tier of tight ends. He and Baltimore's Mark Andrews were the only tight ends in the league this year to have four or more games with at least eight receptions. Hockenson is the only Lions tight end to ever accomplish the feat. He was also fifth among the league's tight ends with 11 recorded contested catches, per Pro Football Focus.

The sky is the limit for Hockenson in this offense as long as he stays healthy. Entering his fourth season in 2022 (the Lions do have a fifth-year option for 2023), Hockenson could be a candidate for re-signing this offseason.

Most improved: Wright signed with Detroit as an undrafted rookie out of Notre Dame with a reputation for being a block-first tight end. But Lions coaches quickly realized that wasn't the case as he continued to make plays in the passing game on the practice field. It became clear Wright had the skill set, he just wasn't given much of an opportunity to show it off in South Bend.

Wright has good speed and soft hands at 6-foot-5, 259 pounds, and his progression from training camp to the end of the season was pretty remarkable. He proved in 10 games played he can play and produce in this league.

Quotable: "I'm going to work out down in Nashville," Hockenson said after the season of his offseason plans. "George (Kittle) and all those guys. Me going down there, I think every year I continue to get better. This year at the beginning of the year, that was the best I ever felt, best football that I thought I was playing.

"So, obviously I'm just going to continue on that, continue to build. It's just day-by-day, week-by-week. Just trying to get one percent better and I think that's what we're trying to do here, build that culture, and then what that builds with everybody. Everybody goes to their respective homes in the offseason which is kind of a unique thing with the league. So trusting that guys are getting one percent better and just continue to build."

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